There was a steady stream of people coming into the Robert Emmet Community Development Project late on Friday morning, plastic bags of photos in hand.
“They’ll just go in the bin otherwise,” said Nuara Anderson, as she leafed through a series of images. She pointed to faces and dropped names of those who have lived, over the years, in the nearby Oliver Bond flats.
“There are four boxes [of photos] in the bedroom, and they would have been dumped,” she says.
An Endless Archive
This year is the 80th anniversary of the building of Oliver Bond Flats, and down on Usher Street, the team at the community-development project have been gathering mementos and memories from those from the area, filing and labelling them, before it’s all lost.
“It started with a couple of photos, now there are hundreds,” said Tony Buckley, who came up with the idea some years back, for Culture Night, and has been working on the archive since.
“I’m interested in local history, when you’re younger you don’t bother,” he said. He had an old aunt who used to tell him stories, and when she passed away all those stories and names and addresses and dates did too.
“The family are trying to go around now, trying to find information that can’t be found, you know,” said Buckley, a retired butcher who recalls the days when a butcher sold just beef or lamb.
More than 10,000 people have called the Oliver Bond complex their home over the last 80 years. So, it’s not surprising that the deliveries of memories and mementos keep arriving.
In one of the rooms at the centre, there is a small exhibit of objects from the community archive that give a sense of who and what has come and gone in the neighbourhood. At the moment, the plan is to run the exhibition until mid-December.
In the coming weeks, there will also be a couple of talks: one about architect Herbert Simms, who designed the flats, and the other about the role of public housing in Irish society.
The plan for what to do with the archive long-term is still a bit unclear. “It’s been like a trail,” said Mairin O Cuireain, the project co-ordinator at the centre. “I’m not 100 percent sure how we’ll take it to the next step, but it’s an active archive.”
Among the photos in Anderson’s blue plastic bag was a blurred image of a cross in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where her husband was among those who served as peacekeepers in 1960.
“They were only kids going away, they were in their 20s you know, they hadn’t a clue where they were going,” she said.
Some survived the Niemba Ambush, but they didn’t talk too much about that, she said.
She was about four years old when she moved into the flats from Winetavern Street. Anderson, 80, said it was a brilliant place. “We had nothing, but it was a great place—” she said.
“—people next door had even less,” said Tony O’Rourke with a chuckle, standing across the table and leafing through folders with photos of football teams.
Anderson said that there were eight of them in a two-bedroom flat. They had two bedrooms, and a scullery, a cooker, a bath with a lid on it — that was the table — and a sink at the window.
“The majority of us got he bath taken out. We washed our kids in the sink, or the big tin baths that you have in front of the fire,” she said.
She worked in a mattress factory on Manor Street, sewing them up by hand, got married in 1957 and had her first child in 1958.
Anderson’s mother died when she was young. “So we’ve no photographs of us when we were small, because we didn’t have a mammy.”
The block where the resource centre sits has changed a lot in the last few decades, says O Cuireain, the project coordinator.
She points to an old map of the neighbourhood and the tenements and factories that would have been central. Those were torn down for newer buildings.
“People come here and they think everybody worked in Guinness, but it’s not true,” she said. There was the matchstick factory, the sewing factories, the Winstanley shoe factory.
“We were poor but well-shod,” says O’Rourke. He remembers buying second-hand pairs for £5, when they would have been £35 even back then. A pair of brown leather shoes are on display in the exhibit, too.
The last original building in the stretch between Usher Street and Bridgefoot Street is at 2 Usher Street.
In one of the archive files is a list, compiled by Buckley, of all the different uses that the building has housed since the 19th century. Feather quills, wool merchants, and now clothes labels.
They used to make a lot of clothing there, but nowadays they’re the last factory in the area, and make the kind of labels that tell you whether you can put your jumper in a washing machine.
“Last one standing is right,” says Paddy O’Connor, who works there and also dropped by the centre on Friday morning. He’s lent some old machinery to the exhibition. “The clothing trades all gone abroad.”
You change with the times, though, he says.